Home is where the heart is. Home is the streets and fields where we played. Out there in the newly named suburban segment of Dublin 12, it was mostly tar and cement. We could make out the gentle curves of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains way down south past Tallaght, but the idyllic scenery and rollicking country fairs singing from our street signs were more our parents baggage then our own.
I was born in 1955, in the first flowering of rock and roll. Bill Haley and His Comets had charted with Rock Around the Clock. Elvis was putting the finishing touches to Heartbreak Hotel. Carl Perkins was lacing up his Blue Suede Shoes. It was all very distant from Walkinstown’s Musical Roads. The popular opera of our musical patron saints held sway.
John McCormack, born in Athlone in 1884, still loomed large in the public consciousness. He was regarded as the Voice of Ireland over the first few decades of the state. He moved from a singer in the Italian Classical tradition to plant a foot in the Irish folk tradition, becoming a peerless interpreter of Moore and French. This was the soundtrack of our youth, as the mortar in the Melodies dried, and the trees first blossomed and sang.
Perhaps McCormack’s wilful folksiness tarnished his reputation as a classical vocalist, but it fuelled his popularity. And the great artist is as much personality and fame as it is quality and depth.His extraordinary voice and charisma earned him a career as a top selling recording artist and international concert performer. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1917. His success funded a rich lifestyle and he had extensive property in the US, Britain and Ireland. In 1928, in recognition of his charitable work, he was awarded a Papal title by Pope Pius XI. Thus he’s often styled Count John McCormack. His repertoire was well larded with religiosity too. He sang Panis Angelicus at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 for an estimated half a million people. His last big gig was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1938, though he toured and recorded over the next five years in support of the Allied war effort. Finally retiring to a house in Booterstown, looking out on Dublin Bay, he died in 1945.
His avenue runs parallel to Bunting Road. Running north from a cul de sac, it merges with Balfe Avenue and then into Balfe Road East skirting Crumlin’s border. There are two right turns off John McCormack. The first, Crotty Avenue, is named for Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960) who is the only woman commemorated. She was an Irish traditional musician from County Clare. Born Elizabeth Markham, she married Miko Crotty and established Crotty’s Pub in Kilrush. Her instrument was the concertina and she achieved some national fame through the programmes of Ciaran MacMathuna on RTE from 1951. This was a couple of years after building commenced on the Walkinstown estate, so she must have been a late addition.
The second is Esposito Road, most exotic sounding of the Musical Roads. Surely the sound of the Samba, of Latin Jazz, must permeate the bricks here, dangerous gauchos posing in the laneways. Well, not quite. Michele Esposito was an Italian composer and pianist who spent much of his life in Ireland, regenerating the neglected classical music system. Esposito founded and directed the Dublin Orchestral Society and was Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, dominating the musical landscape from his arrival in 1882 until his death in 1929. His career overlapped with the great resurgence of Irish culture and Nationalism. In 1902 he scored the opera, the Tinker and the Fairy, from Douglas Hyde’s play, evoking a mythical Ireland emerging from the Celtic Twilight.
This little warren of roads also includes Bigger Road, O’Dwyer Road and O’Brien Road.
Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) was born in County Antrim, the seventh son of a seventh son. He was a lawyer, antiquarian and Irish language revivalist, imbued with rural, De Valeran ideals. A big wheel in the Irish Cultural Revival, Bigger was a mentor of Herbert Hughes in the compilation of Songs of Uladh and Irish Country Songs. Living the life of a colourful laird, Bigger renovated Jordan’s Tower in County Down, which he renamed Castle Shane. This was in honour of Shane O’Neill, a troublesome Earl of Tyrone in Elizabeth’s reign. Shane occupied the fortress in 1565 in a complicated struggle with the MacDonnells of Scotland and the English. Dubbed Shane the Proud, by his detractors initially, though the name stuck with a positive association, he found himself locked in rebellion against the English and ended up with his head on a spike outside Dublin Castle in 1567. This fact filled everyone in my history class with glee at my expense. Perhaps then I decided to dispense with the O’Neill in my name, and become simply Shane Harrison. Meanwhile, Bigger, no musician, got a road named for him in Walkinstown’s Melodies.
Robert O’Dwyer (1862 – 1949), born to Irish parents in Bristol, moved to Dublin in 1897. He taught music at the Royal University of Ireland, a precursor of the National University and conducted the Gaelic League choir. With the spirit of the times, he turned towards Irish Nationalism which found voice in his composition. His three act opera, Eithne, was published in 1909, and vies for consideration as the first Irish language opera. Muirgheas by Thomas O’Brien Butler was a couple of years earlier, as was Esposito’s and Hyde’s the Tinker and the Fairy, though these were first performed in English.
Vincent O’Brien (1871-1948) was born in Dublin and gave his first piano recital in 1885. Shortly afterwards, he became organist in Rathmines Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners before graduating to the Pro Cathedral in Marlborough Street. He initiated the Cecilian Movement in reaction to Enlightenment philosophy and founded the Palestrina Choir in 1898. Such devout Catholicism made him an obvious choice as musical director for the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. He was the first musical director of Radio Eireann, holding the office until 1941. His influence transcended narrow religious affiliation. He was a vocal coach for John McCormack, Margaret Burke Sheridan and James Joyce. The first two would achieve great fame with their singing voice, the third would infuse world art with an altogether different type of voice. Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses unite song and story in a way that effected a transformation of literature.
What would Vincent O’Brien make of it all? Perhaps he was misguided by Flann O’Brien’s fabulous assertion in the Dalkey Archive, that Joyce lived on happily in hiding, repairing semmets for the Jesuits in anticipation of their favour. But if he looked up from his road, he would see Walkinstown Library loom, repository of books and all the dangerous ideas they hold.